Tunisia: Government plans raise concerns of internet censorship

Arabic keyboardTunisian prime minister Hamadi Jebali has outlined government plans to “secure the electronic space of the country”, sparking fears that the government plans to reinstate internet censorship.

The programme will bring together a team of experts not only from the Ministry of Technologies of Communication, but also from the Ministries of Interior, Defence, and Justice.

Activists and bloggers concerns that this announcement could lead to the reintroduction of internet censorship were heightened by the news that the Ministries of Interior and Defence would play a role in “securing” the net.

In an interview on 12 April with state television channel Al-Wataniya TV 1, government spokesperson Samir Dilou, attempted to reassure the public. He said “securing” the internet is for “users’ benefit” and aimed to “prevent defamation and other virtual dangers”.

According to a Bloomberg investigation, the once feared Interior Ministry acted not just as an internet watchdog, but also intercepted and altered emails.

“When the Interior Ministry was involved in “securing” the internet during Ben Ali’s regime, the people couldn’t impeach it after the revolution. We are still unaware about the processes that existed to censor the web. And if we don’t know our past mistakes, we are most likely condemned to repeat them. So I fear that we are paving the path for a comeback of censorship”, said Bassem Bouguerra, a blogger, to Index.

After the 2011 uprising, both the judiciary and the Ministry of Defence have been involved in internet filtering. In May 2011 the Military Tribunal of Tunisia ordered the filtering of five Facebook pages over the publishing of content that the Ministry of Defence claimed sought to “damage the reputation of the military institution and, its leaders”, “destabilise the trust of citizens in the national army”, “and spread disorder and chaos in the country”.

Meanwhile the Tunisian Internet Agency is fighting a court decision ordering the filtering of X-rated websites.
The involvement of these ministries, whether before or after the uprising, in a number of censorship related tasks, explains the concerns that free speech advocates, and bloggers have about the government’s future plan.

Sleh Din Kchouk, President of the Tunisian Pirate Party believes the government’s plan will only “strangle [the] internet”.
“If the government does go ahead with this plan, it will prove to the Tunisian people that it is not here to defend freedoms as it is claiming, but it is here to cover up for people affiliated to the former regime, because it is only through Internet we can reveal the wrong doings of these people”, he added.


Blocking porn marks key test of net freedom in Tunisia

The fall of the regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali has allowed internet users in Tunisia to enjoy a period of unfettered web access after the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) turned off its censorship machines. Now the internet censorship debate has surfaced again.

In May last year a Tunisian court ordered the ATI to block X-rated websites following a complaint lodged by a group of lawyers who argue that pornography violates Islamic values and presents a threat to children surfing the web. This case initiated a debate about “red lines” and internet freedom.

After losing an appeal on 15 August 2011, the ATI took the case higher to the Court of Cassation, claiming that “the filtering of pornographic websites listed by Smart Filter could not be carried out for the five internet service providers.” A verdict is due in the next few days. If the court orders the agency to reinstate filtering, the agency will find itself forced to perform a censorship role it no longer wants to play.

Over the past year, the ATI has attempted to redefine its function. Moez Chakchou, the ATI’s CEO, describes its role post revolution as  “guaranteeing net neutrality, and when we say net neutrality we should not care about the content”.

The ATI chief told Index: “From a judicial point of view, I am obliged to filter, and I do respect these verdicts even though they contradict my personal beliefs.”

Earlier this year, Tunisia’s Interim President Moncef Marzouki, raised the issue of “red lines” in an interview. ‘’There should be red lines limiting freedom of speech…these red lines should not be used as pretexts for censorship…the lines should be debated and accepted by all’’ he said.

Free speech activists believe that filtering pornography or creating “red lines” could pave the way for a comeback of censorship.

“We are fighting against a ghost of the past… It would be regrettable to resort to operations of anonymous (OpTunisia) or to use proxies again just like under the Ben Ali regime”, said Dhouha Ben Youssef, a blogger.

“I believe that the first important step to take in order to prevent the comeback of censorship is adding the word “internet” in the new constitution…because I don’t consider internet as means of communication only, but as means of expression”, she added.

Tunisia does not currently have legislation covering internet censorship, the ATi Chief warns that:

“If the state wants to draw red lines for net freedom, it should first establish an independent authority to regulate the internet. Internet legislation should not be drafted without a regulation authority that creates balance, between public and individual interests”

Censorship in Tunisia takes on religious tone

The fall of El Abidin Ben Ali has paved the way for the emergence of moral and religious censorship, despite opening the doors for freedom of speech and ending internet censorship.

Just like the left, the right have benefited from the fall of the wall of fear. They have organised themselves in political parties or organisations, stage protests to condemn cultural events they consider as “religious harassment,” and attempt to bring to justice those whose acts have “undermined Islam”.

Recently French weeklies Le Point and L’Express were kept from newsstands. The issue of L’Express contained representation of the Prophet, while the front page of Le Point included the headline “questions and answers on the existence of God”.

On 3 January, the Tunisian Press Company (Sotupresse), responsible for distribution of foreign magazines and newspapers in Tunisia, claimed in a press release that the editors of the two French weeklies decided to send the issues to Tunisia, and that Sotupresse did not distribute them “out of respect for the sacred values of Islam, and the Tunisian people.”

A number of upcoming legal cases will determine the extent to which such censorship threatens freedom of speech in post-revolt Tunisia. Two crucial tests are due before the courts; including a demand that the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) filter online pornographic content, and the trial of a TV station director for broadcasting the film Persepolis.

Following a complaint lodged by three lawyers demanding the filtering of pornographic content on the internet,  a court in Tunis issued a verdict on 26 May of last year ordering the Tunisian Internet Agency to block access to pornographic websites. The ATI took the case to the Court of Appeal of Tunis, but lost the appeal on 15 August.

In early February, the ATI will appeal to the court of cassation ( the highest court of appeal) claiming that “the filtering of pornographic websites listed by Smart Filter could not be carried out for the five internet service providers”.

The lawyers demanding the filtering of porn claim that they are trying to protect children surfing the net. The Tunisian Internet Agency, desperate to break all ties with its old image as Internet censurer during the rule of Ben Ali, prefers to raise awareness of both netizens and parents by giving them practical tips on the use of parental control software, rather than censorship.

On 23 January, Nabil Karoui, director of Nessma TV, a private Tunisian channel, along with two of his employees will stand trial for airing the French-Iranian film Persepolis, a few weeks before last year’s election in October. Karoui, who risks three years in prison is accused of ‘’defaming Islam’’ and ‘’causing public disorder’’.

The broadcast of Persepolis, which includes a scene depicting god as a white-bearded man, sparked a wave of protests. The home of Karoui and headquarters of Nessma TV were also attacked. Depictions of god and religious figures are prohibited in Sunni Islam.

Reporters without Borders expressed concern about “the danger posed to media freedom in Tunisia by the increase in religious extremism’’, in an open letter to the new Tunisian government. The group said legal proceedings brought against Nessma “shows that Tunisia’s journalists and media need more than ever for the country’s authorities to defend freedom of expression and the right of its journalists to be able to work without being harassed”.

For free speech advocates, red lines such as moral and religious values can be used as pretexts to crash opponent voices, and pave the way for censorship’s return. Meanwhile, all eyes are on the legal proceedings of the Tunisian Internet Agency, and Nessma TV.